Progress is often hard to reconcile with current events. International aggression, religious extremism, economic hardship, random violence – the unsettling run of news can easily undermine faith that humanity is moving forward. Even history can challenge such faith. The ruins of earlier civilizations, the graveyards of the innocent, are reminders that failure and intolerance sometimes carry the day.
Whether you consider progress real or wishful thinking depends on how you measure it, not just short term versus long term but ideas versus appearances. Francis Fukuyama, the political scientist famed for his 1992 book, “The End of History and the Last Man” – which argued that there are no convincing ideas to counter liberal, free-market democracy – has a good term for what’s going on today. Freedom has inarguably expanded over the long run as measured since 1776, from the end of World War II, and even from the relatively recent collapse of communism. But as in economics, sometimes an upward trend appears to halt and take a few steps back. Since 2005, Dr. Fukuyama notes in a recent reassessment of his “end of history” thesis for The Wall Street Journal, there has been a “democratic recession.”
The stall-out of the Arab Spring left in its wake vicious conflicts (Libya, Syria), authoritarian reaction (Egypt), and widespread disappointment among the growing ranks of educated, globally minded people in the Middle East. Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States attempted to engineer progress through intervention, face uncertain futures. The 1990s experiment with democracy and free markets in parts of the former Soviet Union has morphed into a mix of oligarchic dominance and, in Russia, a disturbing nationalism. And China 25 years after Tiananmen Square is still under the control of one party.
Lack of progress, or actual backsliding, is evident, too, in other areas where it once looked as if there was forward motion. Just a few years ago, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) seemed to be the economic wave of the future. But other than China, each has run into economic problems. Meanwhile, China, amid its all-out push to develop, has encountered grave environmental issues and concerns about the sustainability of its economic model.
In a recent Monitor cover story (read it here), Peter Ford took us inside India. This is one of the BRICS that is committed to democracy but has an endemic problem with corruption – the bribe, the incentive, the “impressing” of a bureaucrat with a gift or favor. India’s new prime minster, Narendra Modi, earned a reputation for cutting through red tape and diminishing corruption in his native state of Gujarat. The question is whether he can transfer that to a national stage. If nothing else, India is a bottom-up country, a culture trying to better itself despite governmental impediments. Progress for people into the middle class has been faster in China than in India. But because progress is being built by the people of India, not the planners, it might prove more durable.
The Chinese model may work in China – for now – but it hasn’t been adopted elsewhere. There is, in fact, no serious alternative to democracy and free markets today, Fukuyama points out. Marxism has been discredited. Few people are interested in living under Boko Haram, the Taliban, or the various permutations of Al Qaeda. In the face of Russian aggression, most Ukrainians are even more committed to Western democracy and freedom.
Progress sometimes pauses. It never stops progressing.
John Yemma is editor-at-large of the Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.